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Tristan Thompson’s Role in the NBA Finals Is Kind of a Big Deal

The Cavs’ ability to control the boards played a big role in Game 1. Thompson avoiding a suspension for Game 2 could help Cleveland keep its edge.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last 11 seconds of Game 1 of the NBA Finals couldn’t have gone much worse for the Cavaliers, which is quite a thing to say given that J.R. Smith forgetting the score cost them a chance at a game-winning shot, and that they could muster only seven points in overtime to the Warriors’ 17. At the center of Cleveland’s troubles in the waning seconds of its 124-114 loss was Tristan Thompson. The Cavs center was upset that Shaun Livingston took a jumper with five seconds left and Golden State’s victory firmly in hand (even though the shot clock was set to run out four seconds before the game clock), and was ejected because of it.

It must have been what Thompson said that earned him the ejection, but his actions after being thrown out nearly changed the calculus of the series. Thompson made a U-turn while heading to the tunnel to jaw with Draymond Green. Eventually, he hit the Warriors forward on the side of the head with either his hand or the basketball Thompson was holding, or both. A brief skirmish ensued before the two were separated. Thompson was called for a Flagrant 2 for his foul on Livingston, but he he avoided a suspension for Game 2. The league fined him $25,000 Friday for failing to leave the court in a timely manner, but the foul was downgraded to a Flagrant 1.

Cleveland needs Thompson as much as it does Kevin Love, who will not be suspended for being outside the bench area before the scuffle happened, according to multiple reports. One of the Cavs’ clear edges on Golden State in Game 1 was on the boards. They outrebounded the Warriors 53-38, and corralled 19 offensive rebounds to the Warriors’ four. Those second chances netted 21 points for the Cavs, which somehow was not enough. Thompson didn’t exactly have a stellar game statistically. He finished with five rebounds in 20 minutes, and scored only two points. But good things happen the more active he is on the boards: The Cavs are 4-1 in games where he’s had nine rebounds or more throughout these playoffs.

Larry Nance Jr., who has played more as the postseason has progressed, amassed 11 rebounds (four offensive) and nine points in 11 minutes. Love grabbed a team-high 13 boards and added 21 points. The Cavs’ big man rotation is clearly crucial to their success in this series. If the Warriors go small, the trio has the ability to make Kevon Looney—who started the game and played 25 minutes—a minus on the floor. Literally. Looney was the only Golden State starter with a negative plus-minus.

Golden State’s bigs have clogged up their bench more than the opponent’s paint this postseason. And if Steve Kerr is forced to match up with the Cavs’ bigger bodies instead of playing them off the floor with small lineups, then Cleveland should have the upper hand.

However, in Game 1, Kerr tried a Hail Mary that ended up working just enough to be a short-term solution. He started the second half with JaVale McGee at center instead of Looney, and McGee, much to everyone’s surprise, hung in there, guarding LeBron James well on switches and playing active enough defense that Kerr might consider starting him in Game 2. (McGee ended up plus-7 in six minutes.) Still, relying on McGee to be consistent going forward feels like asking a lit candle wick not to burn. Case in point:

Hoping that McGee will come through is not something one of the most talented teams of all time should have to do, and yet here we are, with the Warriors out of options. Kerr said Friday that Andre Iguodala is doubtful for Game 2. Shaun Livingston is filling in fine, but he doesn’t have the same effect on both ends as Iguodala. And so the Warriors are forced to make do with Looney, Jordan Bell, McGee, and even David West.

“Honestly, I don’t care if [Thompson] plays or not … I mean, he’s great on the O boards,” Klay Thompson told reporters at Warriors practice on Friday. “He always causes us problems with that. But we’re concerned with how our game plan’s going to be executed and what we have to do to limit them on the offensive glass. So, I’m not too concerned if Thompson is available or not, to be honest.”

The Warriors’ top-end talent may indeed make the center matchup moot. But the Cavs were in position to steal Game 1 up until the final seconds of regulation. Losing Thompson would have made it even tougher for a team that was painted as one the biggest Finals underdogs in recent memory to do so again.